It’s hard to believe I just had another birthday. My 40th!
I might have one of those digits wrong. Or, em, both of them. But shall we just let that be?
It turns out that my birthday, September 10, was Worldwide Suicide Prevention Day, which of course is only one day in the important Suicide Prevention Awareness Month that runs the entire 30 days of September.
I began my career as a mental health nurse, and while I’ve been in a progression of health care leadership roles in the intervening years, there is a sense in which I feel I’ve come home vocationally in my role at South Shore Mental Health. Every year, the timing of my birthday, even if I do miscount, reminds me of the importance of bearing down on improving mental health services and making sure that the people who need them have access. At South Shore Mental Health, we help people who face significant emotional distress overcome trauma through our therapeutic intervention.
Yet the month of September marks another event that few of us will forget, the tragic suicide of consummate entertainer Robin Williams. Just mentioning his name stirs up a mental collage of the television appearances or movies we remember him for or his inimitable comedy sketches. He made us laugh. He made us cry. But we can’t forget him.
Learning that he struggled with depression and ended his own life stunned us all. After his death, we learned more, when his widow revealed that his autopsy showed he had Lewy Body Dementia and no one knew, certainly not Robin. His fight against a frustrating, debilitating unnamed enemy likely contributed to his mental status on the day he died.
Robin Williams died three years ago this month. Remembering this challenges me to keep thinking more intentionally about how we must truly see and value each person in our community. On the face of things, people can look quite connected, yet we might know so little about the demons that torment them, that they work so hard to hide from us, that they even don’t understand themselves.
And then a moment comes when they surrender.
Somehow we have to do a better job of seeing these people and helping them sooner.
Robin William’s death sparked an unprecedented increase in the number of calls to suicide prevention hotlines, and it wasn’t just a passing blip as it sometimes is when a celebrity death is in the news. Over time we may find that his story has helped to bring lasting change to the understanding that the mental health disorders that can lead to the tragedy of suicide don’t discriminate.
The truth is that the suicide rate hasn’t changed in over two decades. We need—urgently—to find a way to make it go down. I may have some fun pretending to turn 40 a few more Septembers, but I’m serious about using every month of the year to bring hope not simply of surviving, but thriving.